Wednesday, September 15, 2010

balance, pt. 3: research

If I didn't have to - or didn't want to - do research, I could easily achieve a zen-like state of life balance. Alas, in the real world, I desperately try to cram research into the crevices left by a 20-credit teaching load, two small children, service, and the necessary maintenance of our bodies and home. Research is the sand around the rocks in the jar of time, or maybe it's the water. It's definitely the straw that makes the jar too heavy to move (not to mangle my metaphors or anything).

I had a post planned about Research Day (one day a week that I don't teach but dedicate to research), but to be honest, that's never worked for me. I kept thinking that it should, but inevitably that day is eaten up by meetings and paperwork and all the little things that have built up over the week. So, I've decided to try a new approach.

A friend posted this useful link on Facebook. It's the first article in a series by Kerry Ann Rockquemore aimed at helping academics write. She argues that most of us try to apply the habits that worked for us in graduate school (scheduling large blocks of writing time) to a new job situation where large blocks of uninterrupted time just don't occur. She suggests a daily writing system, and this first article offers several challenges. These are:

  • Let go of any past writing failures and release yourself from the negative feelings associated with not writing, producing, or finishing your work in the past.
  • Create a semester work plan that identifies your writing goals, outlines the tasks required to meet your goals, and maps the work that will be required to meet your goals onto your calendar (visit the NCFDD discussion forum if you need some examples).
  • Share your semester plan with your mentor and ask for his/her feedback.
  • Commit to 30 – 60 minutes of writing each day this week.
  • Greet your resistance with curiosity and compassion when it shows up (and it will).
  • Commit yourself to whatever supportive community will meet your needs this semester.
OK, so letting go of past guilt is a little on the touchy-feely side for me. The rest of this seems sound, though, and God knows I'm ready to try almost anything to improve my productivity. So, yesterday I came up with a semester plan. Here it is, with details changed to protect my anonymity:

Week of Sept 13 - write pre-tenure sabbatical application, send to colleagues for feedback
Sept 20 - Begin article A revisions, re-writing introduction and background sections
Sept 27 - revise and finalize pre-tenure sabbatical application, re-do graphs for article A
Oct 4 - re-write body and conclusions of article A, send to colleagues for feedback
Oct 11 - bibliography and formatting for article A; outline revisions for article B
Oct 18 - revise article A with comments, write section on [prey type] ecology for article B
Oct 25 - write section on ethnographic studies of hunting techniques for article B
Nov 1 - write section on climate change evidence for article B
Nov 8 - article B bibliography and formatting, submit
Nov 15 - begin work on grant application, outline and get finalized list of assemblages
Nov 22 - write project narrative
Nov 29 - finish project narrative
Dec 6 - bibliography, budget justification, PI biographies, etc.
I don't have huge expectations for this semester, I'm just trying to turn one conference paper into a full-blown publication, extensively revise one article for re-submission, and write the bulk of a rather large grant application. Oh, and apply for a pre-tenure sabbatical semester. I tried to be realistic with my goals each week.

In accordance with challenge #3, I intended to show this plan to my mentor when we met for coffee this morning, but we're both very sick, so we had to cancel. We've rescheduled for next week, and I'll definitely show it to her then.

To meet challenge #4, I spent some time playing with my electronic calendar system, and I have now blocked off 60 minutes every day except for one (long story). This morning, when writing time came, I closed my office door and started on my pre-tenure sabbatical application. I was able to write nearly 1,000 words in an hour, and I think I've set things up well for the next writing hour. Obviously, I hope to actually write more than 60 minutes a day on some days. This semester, my Friday schedule is very open, so I'm hoping that consistent writing on Mon-Thur will set me up for a very productive day at the end of the week. Who knows, I may even get well ahead of my schedule!

Challenge #5 - yeah, we're getting into touchy-feely territory again. I promise I'll be compassionate and curious about my resistence, or whatever.

Finally, on to the last challenge: committing myself to a supportive community. In the past, I've tried writing groups and they didn't work for me. I found Rockquemore's post on supportive communities extremely helpful in this regard. She describes many types of writing groups. I don't need a traditional writing group to read my work, I need someone to keep me honest about my writing time. Rockquemore describes a "Writing Accountability Group", a group in which each person declares, on a weekly basis:
1) my goals for last week were _______, 2) I did/did not meet them, 3) if I didn't meet them, it’s because of _______ and 4) my writing goals for next week are _______
Just that brief moment of accountability, I believe, could do wonders.

So, I see two options for creating a writing accountability group. One is to do a weekly writing accountability post on this blog, and to encourage any readers to join me. Anyone interested?

The other option would be to do a weekly post on Facebook, which might be annoying to a lot of my old high school acquaintances, but would have the advantage of making me feel accountable in a way that an anonymous blog post would not. On the other hand, a lot of my colleagues are Facebook friends, and if I start posting a string of failed writing weeks, it could affect how I'm perceived on campus, even my tenure case.

So, what do you all think? Accountability blog posts, or Facebook posts, or - heck, why not? - both?


  1. I think I'll join you!! I checked out the original link, which had some great suggestions.

    Facebook gets tricky. You'd be inviting all of your Facebook friends to scrutinize your work life. Either it's none of their business (and you don't want their opinion), or your university colleagues might wonder if they NEED to keep an eye on you. Undoubtedly some of these people are trustworthy friends/colleagues/mentors who will empathize, but you can't be selective enough with posts. That said, I think it's nice when people post work-related successes. Hard to see how that could hurt--and everyone enjoys a pat on the back after accomplishing something!

    Peace and productivity,

  2. yay! I'm glad you'll join me. It's been working well so far, so I'm hoping to keep it up. I've always been one of those "work in large chunks of time" people, and I know you're more the type who can get a lot done in short chunks. I want to be more like you in this regard! We'll see how it goes. This morning's writing hour got me about 700 words, and I'm still going.